Essays and Sermons

Between her kitchen and the front room she leans against the doorframe wearily, watching her small son build a tower of blocks. He sits on the varnished wood floor, legs bent at the knees like folded wings. Before him, a small triumph — two blocks with alphabet letters long faded, stacked one atop the other. He holds a chipped E atop the tiny stack, then releases it too soon, undoing his small achievement.

Hottest day of the summer so far and she’s been cooking and canning since dawn. Her bib apron is dusty with flour, stained berry, peach and plum. The faded blue cotton housedress beneath is blotched with patches of sweat. And the once neat bun at the nape of her neck is unraveling. Wisps of curls, some already gray, halo her face. Lifting the apron, she wipes sweat trickling down her face, then rests her head against the frame, noting its peeling paint as she does.

As her boy reaches for another block, the late afternoon sun coming through the front windows frames him, dust motes flickering and glittering around his soft yellow curls, like fairy dust. The thought surprises her. Fairies. She hasn’t thought of them in years. She remembers curling up in her mother’s lap, listening to stories from a favorite picture book, the one with pastel renderings of a magical world where everything is possible.

She looks again at her son, caressing him with her eyes. His golden curls please her, which is why she puts off trimming them. That deep dimple in the middle of his chin, those clear, watery blue eyes. He could have been a charmer.

HIs name is Andrew – Andy, named after his father. With the other two boys she had resisted that name, fearing it would be a curse, the name of a man who so often failed. But this time, hoping he would be the last, she’d given in.

Fairy dust. She could use a little. She’d sprinkle it around, make three wishes, use one of them to start fresh. Next time Andy wouldn’t make her pregnant, there would be no hurry-up wedding, no shame, no shunning.

She closes her eyes, remembering. It wasn’t entirely his fault. She had let him do it. But she didn’t know then that you could lose so much, so fast. The farm, the house, their little bit of savings — all gone in the Great Depression. She didn’t know she would feel so spent, so many dreams in ashes at 34.

She’d been bright, bookish, had gone further than most, finished the eighth grade. But what good had it done her? No money for books, no time to read. Scarcely time enough to do the wash, make meals, clean house, tend the husband, make babies, then feed them, fret over them.

She opens her eyes and surveys the room before her. The furniture, never new, is neatly arranged. The sofa’s seat cushions she had recovered to hide the worn spots, topping each with a floral rose and mint green leaf pattern. On the floor in front of the sofa, a small rug. Opposite, a rocking chair and one overstuffed chair. Between these, a small table for the radio, its wooden box shaped like a cathedral arch and on its face, two dials that tune to other worlds.

She sweeps and dusts this room daily. It has become an obsession, as if order in this one room will keep her sane. She knows she can’t let herself go crazy. Not yet.

The boy moves, crab-like, toward the scattered blocks. When she found she was pregnant again, she’s cried, for months. They could hardly afford the four they had. He’s not right this little son of hers. Four other children before this one, so she’d known. Not right.

Sometimes though, she fears it was her fault. Punishment because she hadn’t wanted him or because she had sinned with the first one.

Andy had said the boy just needed time, everything would be all right. He always said that, about everything and it was never all right. Never. So she saved up, took the bus to see the doctor, heard him say the dreaded words, “He won’t live long, maybe ten years, maybe a little more. Some do.”

He turns nine this year. His arms and legs so thin, like he has polio or rickets. He can’t walk, so his brothers fixed him a little board with wheels so he can get around. He can’t talk, but he makes sounds, a way of telling her when he’s hurt, hungry, happy.

Most of the time she calls him B, not Andy. They all do. His brother Russ had tried to teach him to spell his name. When he couldn’t say A, he tried B. That Andy could do, make that little hard puff of air for B. B for brother. B for boy. B that sounds like “me.”

It stuck, a nickname. He hears fine she knows, because he turns to her whenever she calls to him, calls B.

He can laugh. Breaks out in a wide grin that deepens his beautiful dimple. It surprises her that he seems happier than her other children. And never happier then when he’s near her, playing with fabric scraps while she sews or, like now, stacking blocks while she cooks.

One day, maybe soon, there will be a funeral. Some will pass by his coffin in this very room, peer down at his little boy face and say with certainty, “It’s a blessing, isn’t it?” or “He’ll be happier in heaven with Jesus.”

She’ll want to scratch their eyes out. She’ll want to scream, You don’t know what the hell you are talking about!

She stirs at the thought, lifts the apron up over her head and sets it behind her on the kitchen table. He looks up as she comes toward him, smiles, stretches out his arms. Bending over she gathers him up. His long, gangly legs wrap around her body, his arms encircle her neck.

Fairy dust. Oh God, all she wants is just a little. Just enough for him.


          – for my great grandmother Hazel Reminga Volkema (1895-1952)